We saw the cathedral long before we reached Ripon the first day. We emerged from our visit to Fountains Abbey and the water gardens up to the long road out of the estate. The cathedral massed there straight ahead of us on the horizon, a shining presence of stone.
It looked like we could walk straight there, I wanted to. Signs warned against this however. Private road, private property. We had to turn left. We never got to see the cathedral quite like this again.
But in our short time in Ripon we saw it countless times, from many angles. It stands tall on its hill, an oddly solid weight of stone trying to soar. Staring up at the great main face of it praised by Pevsner, it feels almost like a different building altogether. Razed to the ground several times over its 1300 years of history, the power of kings and church rebuilt it reincorporating old patterns–built it higher, bigger, but never finished it. No flying buttresses support its rising. A beautiful wood roof arches over the nave and quire in a still immense echoing of cathedral space that made my heart sing.
Seeing the city as a work of art is a curious way to view a city, I found it an interesting exercise. This book represents quite a masterful look at London, Paris and Vienna, with a splendid raft of photographs, illustrations and quotations. To the greater or lesser extent that I know them, they are all cities that I love. Perhaps the best way to document just how Olsen thinks of cities here is to give a view of the table of contents – you can see that he gets through quite a lot.
THE CITY AS LUXURY 1Urban Virtue and Urban Beauty THE CITY AS MONUMENT 2The Monumental Impulse 3The Remaking of London The Vision of Splendor, 1811-1825 • Disillusion and Disgust, 1825-1837 • The Victorian Alternative 4The New Paris Paris before Haussmann • Paris Remade, 1852-1870 • Paris after Haussmann, 1870-1914 5The Vienna of Franz Joseph Vienna in 1857 • The Creation of the Ringstrasse 6The Process of Urban Embellishment THE CITY AS HOME 7The Building and the Dwelling: The Family and the Individual • London • Paris Vienna 8Inside the Dwelling: The Public and the Private • The London House • The Paris Flat • The Viennese Wohnung 9Social Geography The Town as a Map of Society • London • Paris • Vienna 10Villa Suburbia London • Paris • Vienna 11Working-Class Housing: Scarcity, Abundance, and Domestic Values THE CITY AS PLAYGROUND 12London: Hidden Pleasures 13Paris: The Garden and the Street 14Vienna: Display and Self-Representation THE CITY AS DOCUMENT 15Architecture as Historical Evidence 16The Beautiful: In Search of a Nineteenth-Century Aesthetic • London • Paris • Vienna 17Architecture as Language: Representation and Instruction 18The City as the Embodiment of History
Exploring the City as Art also, of course, means really as ‘high art’. I find that just a little tiresome, as I do of this ongoing debate that tires me of cities as good or bad, beautiful or ugly — there are a number of binary debates rehearsed in here. But useful to give his summary here:
The city as a work of art? Surely not. The city as wasteland, perhaps, or as battleground, or jungle. The city as manifestation of all that is rotten in society, festering wound in the body politic, foretaste of hell in which brute force tramples the weak underfoot, corruption feeds on innocence, gluttony mocks hunger, unprotected virtue submits to triumphant vice. From Juvenal to Cobbett, from Saint Augustine to Jefferson, poets and moralists, publicists and philosophers have subjected the city to righteous abuse. In more measured language, the modern scholar approaches urbanization as a pathologist tracing the course of a disease. Defenders of the city usually justify their position on economic rather than aesthetic grounds. They see the city as infrastructure, to be judged by the efficiency with which it facilitates the creation and distribution of wealth. To both attackers and defenders, the city is the product of vast, anonymous forces, not an individual creation. Any beauty it might possess would be incidental to its real nature, any visible structure one imposed by historical necessity rather than artistic intent.
Yet with rare exceptions, such as Ireland before the Viking invasions, the civilizations of the past have regarded cities as neither shameful nor inevitable, but as deliberate creations, worth making sacrifices to build, maintain, and embellish. (3)
I do quite love the idea of city as deliberate creation — what after all is the point of urban planning if not that (though I know I know it is so rarely that…) In the end I find viewing London-Paris-Vienna through the eyes of Art and Architectural History (and this very specific view of Art and Architectural History capitalised) enriches other views (as annoyed as I sometimes became reading it, being a great lover of bottom-up histories rather than this necessarily top down one, which as Olsen says by necessity excludes industrial cities such as Sheffield given such a focus on ART and ARCHITECTURE, but aside from all my annoyance still to some degree a useful exercise…). He writes of London:
Here both individual and national extravagance were at worst forgivable, at best laudable. Whether such extravagance took the form of an afternoon spent purchasing frivolities in Bond Street or the erection of pinnacled monuments along the Embankment, London offered possibilities of conspicuous self-indulgence and significant display that would have been out of place in an industrial city. To grasp the meaning of such self-indulgence, such display, the techniques of the economic historian are useless, those of the social historian inadequate. The art historian and the intellectual historian are better qualified to illuminate our understanding of cities that, like London, transcend in both aspiration and achievement the merely practical and utilitarian.
While waiting for the results of the refined analysis such specialists may engage in, we can perhaps achieve cruder but still valuable insights by using our eyes and by finding out how people in the century before 1914 themselves perceived London, Paris, and Vienna. (6)
And thus we begin. This book is quite full of splendid detail, almost too much so, it is impossible to capture or blog properly. I’ve pulled out a little for each city of London – Paris – Vienna separately, but here try to give just a sense of how Olsen compares them.
City As Monument
The nineteenth was the most historically minded of centuries, the one most aware of itself as participant in a continuing drama. It possessed at the same time, unexampled means for giving material expression to that awareness…London, Paris, and Vienna had long contained monuments. Only in the nineteenth century did they try to become monuments. (9)
I like that distinction, I confess. Olsen continues:
Although the inner core of each city bore uncomfortable witness to its medieval origins, suburban extensions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed a degree of order and decency that occasionally rose to monumentality.
What failed them from doing so completely? The ‘enforced poverty’ of English monarchs subject to Parliament’s unwillingness to pay out. For the Bourbons and Habsburgs, ‘another instance of their unwillingness to interfere with private interests and individual rights‘ (10-11).
The concluding chapter (The Process of Urban Embellishment) sums the monumental argument up (I am also enjoying reviewing these geographies in my mind and how they resonate or not with my own experiences of walking these cities, such a pleasure during this time of lockdown):
first London, then Paris, and finally Vienna attempted to turn them-selves into monuments in the course of the nineteenth century. London, between 1811 and 1837, remade itself along the line connecting Regent’s Park with St. James’s Park and Trafalgar Square; Paris, between 1852 and 1870, cut great swaths across itself, north to south, east to west, and diagonally, planting trees and flowers wherever it could; Vienna, beginning in 1857, turned a fortified zone into a ring of pleasure. The three programs shared a number of characteristics: they resulted from the initiative of the central government; depended for their success on the attraction of private investment by speculative builders and developers; were intended to make royal or imperial residences more prominent; created public parks; mixed public and private buildings, ecclesiastical and secular purposes, residential and commercial uses; used architecture mainly in the classical tradition (broadly defined); put up monuments of national, imperial, dynastic, or cultural significance; built wide streets both to facilitate traffic and to serve as fashionable promenades; and combined aesthetic with social and sanitary motives. London and Paris incorporated slum clearance in the preliminary demolitions; in Vienna no destruction of residential or commercial property, slum or otherwise, was necessary.
And a note to self on the distinctiveness of Vienna — which does indeed feel different and I think in the end in great part because of this:
One peculiarity, indeed, of Vienna is that it has never indulged either in the cutting through of percees or in systematic slum clearance as these operations were carried out in London and Paris. (82)
Yet these had nothing on the great motorways and ringroads of the following centuries.
The City as Home
The two dominant institutions of the nineteenth century, the two focuses of loyalty, were the family and the nation-state. … Between the late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century there had developed, through western and northern Europe, a belief in the values of individualism, privacy, and domesticity. (89)
Thus, he argues:
The dwellings of London, Paris, and Vienna illuminate the respective attitudes of the three societies toward domesticity, familial affection, privacy, and individuality. (90)
Been reading a lot about homes, how they’ve changed over the centuries (like Judith Flanders, Witold Rybczynski, my favourite from Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling) so nothing here was too revelatory, though I loved the architectural drawings of buildings and almost laughed out loud at this:
The English were convinced that nowhere were domestic virtues better or more extensively cultivated than in England. Paris certainly, and Vienna so far as they knew about it, seemed on the whole more suitable for extramarital adventure than for sober family life. (90)
This goes without saying
The major difference between them being that English cities tend to be made up of ‘small dwelling houses’ while the other two ‘large blocks of flats’. (92)
But this I hadn’t known:
And this — almost all London buildings beginning life as residences, true of most houses between the City and Hyde Park:
And even while Parisian middle classes loved their flats, still there remained some of these:
And then there is Vienna — where not a single medieval home still exists. It is now palaces of the aristocracy and blocks of flats for the rest.
How can we read social geographies through architecture? Broadly speaking, he argues that medieval homes had everyone living and undertaking work and other activities in the same space and this slowly transitioned into single family homes partitioned with each person and activity separated and assigned space, servants separate from family, more public spaces separate from private. Just so cities went from such a mix to more segregated subdivisions. London, due to being larger and more technologically advanced with its embracing of domesticity and privacy took this further earlier than either Paris or Vienna.
This of course could only proceed so far until modern transport, and the spaces for workers, servants, carriages and horses and such even in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods were no longer required. I love mews though have only known them in their gentrified incarnations. This lovely illustration shows all they were before becoming additional luxury residences.
While the English perceived class distinctions to be fewer in France, Olsen hedges that it was only slightly less in Paris than in London, especially after the 1850s and 60s, but always a distinction between left bank and right, interior and the working class suburbs. Still, in London and Paris the geographies of wealth and fashion did shift to some extent. Of all three Vienna remained the most stable: prosperous aristocratic neighborhoods remained so, and there continues to be ‘a marked decline in social prestige as one moves from the first Bezirk (City and Rigstrasse) to Vorstadt…to Vorort’. (151)
Also housing signaled slightly different things in each city:
The customary English way for a rich City man to insinuate himself, or rather his descendants, into the governing class was to purchase a country estate and set himself up as a landed gentleman. No London mansion, no taking of a house in Grosvenor Square, would serve to expunge the mercantile stain. In Vienna residence in the City, far from being incompatible with a noble manner of living, was essential to it. The Ringstrasse, though attached to the City, imitating it in its architectural forms, and surpassing it in physical magnificence, never succeeded in equaling it in fashion and prestige. The French aristocracy transferred itself to the Marais under Louis XIII, to Saint-Germain under Louis XV, and—if it could afford it—to the Champs-Elysees and beyond during the Third Republic; the Viennese aristocracy, once established in the Altstadt, stayed there.
I sit and try to remember what it felt like to wander these cities, to travel at all. Olsen continues on Vienna:
It would be wrong to exaggerate the social inferiority of the Ringstrasse. It served rather as the concrete expression of the admission to the ruling classes of both individuals and broader social groupings, who expanded and enriched the older governing class just as the Ringstrasse zone expanded and enriched the older City. The Ringstrasse united new aristocracy with old, money with birth, ability with rank, the arts and scholarship with politics and administration.-3 It represented what was healthiest about the last period of the Habsburg Empire: its openness to talent, new ideas, and new artistic forms, whatever their origin; its cosmopolitanism, its respect for learning and achievement, and its refusal to be shocked by the unconventional. (154)
This is obviously not the place to look for solid descriptions of working class housing, but there is this:
The paucity of reference to the working classes in this discussion of the city as home may suggest that privacy, intimacy, and domesticity were qualities too expensive for them to afford. With respect to the housing available to them in Paris and Vienna, and to a considerable extent in London, this may very nearly have been true: when the normal family dwelling consists of a single room, with perhaps a small separate kitchen, discussing the impact of degagements and subdivided, specialized areas makes little sense… As for neighborhoods segregated by social class, the luxury of choice of district was a middle-class privilege: the workers moved to whatever places economically stronger groups chose to avoid.
Studies of working-class housing before 1914, local and national, normally stress its inadequacy—overcrowded, overpriced, and insufficient—and note the failure of the free market to produce enough new housing to keep up with the growing population, much less bring average standards up to a level of decency. The most optimistic estimates show a degree of improvement far less than any overall rise in living standards.1 But as one reads the dismal accounts the nagging objection emerges: conditions everywhere could not be worse than they were everywhere else. And the testimony both of contemporaries and of the buildings themselves suggests that for the working classes as for the middle classes, standards were higher in London than in Paris, in Paris than in Vienna. They were high enough to enable a significant minority of London’s working classes to imitate middle-class patterns of behavior, much as the middle classes were shaping their own lives according to their notion of aristocratic manners.
There is also some reference to the economics of it all, which I appreciated:
Contributing more to differentials in cost were the local building codes, most stringent in Vienna, least in London. The flimsy, jerry-built construction practiced by London’s builders, of which contemporaries were forever complaining, did enable them to build and sell more cheaply and allowed house owners to make reasonable profits from lower rents than would have been conceivable in either Paris or Vienna. The mild English winters and the willingness of the English to endure cold indoors permitted builders to make little provision for insulation or other than primitive heating arrangements.
The nature of the London building industry, in which large numbers of small undercapitalized speculators were able to coexist with giants like Cubitt and William Willett, meant that there were always those willing to plunge into housing development whatever the economic climate. They went bankrupt with monotonous regularity, leaving rows of carcasses to be finished by the next generation of hopeful speculators, but the houses ultimately got built. The syndicates and companies that were responsible for building Paris and Vienna were not above over-estimating the market themselves, but on the whole they behaved more rationally and cautiously and hence built more in response to than in anticipation of demand.
And of course all of these — the type, amount, cost of housing, building codes, climate etc — were co-constitutive of how people lived in it. Each impacted the other and I wouldn’t wager which was more important, but the large differences remain
If the nature of the London house, the layout of the London street, and the pattern of development that informed the Victorian metropolis encouraged withdrawal and seclusion, the structure of the Paris flat, the attractions of the Paris street, and the very nature of Paris itself called its residents out of doors. If the life of London lay hidden in its drawing rooms, inside its clubs, within the cozy subdivisions of its pubs, the life of Paris was there for all to see, and perhaps to join: in its promenades, its boulevards, and its streets. (185)
City as Playground
This is partly city as enjoyed by tourist. Interesting to note London as a city was very much lacking in hotels or restaurants. For men single or married, there was instead the club. Described by Cesar Daly (who I must read but seems like I must read him in French, yikes) as a way to enjoy the society of others without mixing with those of inferior social class. That sums up England rather beautifully.
Olsen quotes Henry T. Tuckerman on Paris, a very different sort of place:
We of England and America, instinctively revolve about a permanent centre, hallowed and held by the triple bond of habit, love, and religion. Not so the Parisians: Imagine … we dwelt in a kind of metropolitan encampment, requiring no domicile except a bedroom for seven hours in the twenty-four, and passing the remainder of each day and night as nomadic cosmopolites: going to a café to breakfast, a restaurant to dine, an estaminet to smoke, a national library to study, a cabinet de lecture to read the gazettes, a public bath for ablution…a thronged garden to promenade, a theatre to he amused, a museum for science, a royal gallery for art, a municipal ball, literary soirée, or suburban rendezvous, for society.39 (217)
Fun fact: The first raised foot pavement in Paris was in the rue de ‘Odeon in 1781 (Wow) but rare anywhere else until the 1830s. And yet, this view of Paris as a place where live is lived out of doors is ubiquitous, as in this quote from Philip Gilbert Hamerton (Paris in Old and Present Times). ‘The English have invented the house, the French have invented the street.‘
Vienna? ‘No city in Europe is better suited for a life of public self-representation‘.
The City as Document
This opens with a bit of a debate around history and architecture that I find a little stale,
An assumption underlying this book has been that a work of art is also a historical source, that the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the nineteenth century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century. (251)
The caption for the picture below: “A Parisian facade seems to be a drawing in stone, full size, literally an immense lithograph.” Rue de la Victoire 98. From Revue Generale de l’architecture 16 (1858)
This one is even better for Vienna: “If a street census were taken…they would certainly equal the population of a respectable market town.” Figurative sculpture on facade of Schubertring 9-11, Ludwig von Zettl , architect, 1865 (Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universitat Wien. Photo Johana Fiegl).
Architecture as Language
Just a few good quotes;
“The history of architecture is the history of the world,- proclaimed Pugin in 1843. “The belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised.” [A. Welby Pugin An Apology… 1969]
1892 N. J. W. Westlake: “the higher architecture is . . . a language for the expression of thought. . . . In ancient times it expressed the ideas of the period in the idiom of the period.”
Pevsner: “…every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not. The Victorian architect wanted it.” [A History of Building Types]
From John Belcher’s presidential address to the RIBA in 1904, where he ‘made explicit a conviction implicit in historicist theory: architecture and its associated arts could convey the maximum of beauty, morality, and truth only if they combined to form a Gesamtkunstwerk‘:
Architecture must tell its tale; it has its message to deliver. Like a musical score it expresses a great deal more than meets the eye. . . . Architecture is the prose of inarticulate but beautiful thought and feeling. Sometimes it tells of the commonplace in life; rising higher it speaks of domestic peace and happiness; and yet again in more stately diction it sets forth the grander and larger purposes of life. It recounts the past, records the present, and holds up ideals for the future. But only when it is enriched from the sister arts of sculpture and painting can it tell the tale with the fulness of eloquence and power.
Olsen’s take, and a summary of the questions he tries to answer here:
What messages were buildings, cities, and other works of art expected to transmit? What meaning did they possess, what ideas did they contain? What can a city, in its capacity as a work of art, accomplish? What can art do, apart from existing in its own right? It can tell a story, or many stories. It can establish a mood. It can reinforce selected virtues. It can surprise and delight by unexpected juxtapositions of forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can soothe and reassure by repetition of familiar forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can stand for, or represent, ideas, qualities, institutions. English critics placed great stress on the expressive qualities of buildings, German theorists on their representational qualities. (285)
Olsen, Donald J. (1986) The City as a Work of Art: London – Paris – Vienna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
I almost wholeheartedly loved Walter Gropius on the Scope of Total Architecture. One of the key figures of Bauhaus, he still writes this as his preface, reminding us of the ideals behind the best of this new architecture:
CREATION AND love of beauty are elemental for the experience of happiness. A time which does not recognize this basic truth does not become articulate in the visual sense; its image remains blurred, its manifestations fail to delight.
Since my early youth I have been acutely aware of the chaotic ugliness of our modem man-made environment when compared to the unity and beauty of old, preindustrial towns. In the course of my life I became more and more convinced that the usual practice of architects to relieve the dominating disjointed pattern here and there by a beautiful building is most inadequate and that we must find, instead, a new set of values, based on such constituent factors as would generate an integrated expression of the thought and feeling of our time.
How such a unity might be attained to become the visible pattern for a true democracy-that is the topic of this book. It is based, essentially, on articles and lectures written-with a few exceptions-during my years in Harvard University as chairman of the Department of Architecture (1937-1952). (7)
ENTERING A new chapter of my life that–contrary to the normal expectation of life after seventy–looks to me just as turbulent and perilous as the period preceding it, I realize that I am a figure covered with labels, maybe to the point of obscurity. Names like “Bauhaus Style,” “International Style,” “Functional Style” have almost succeeded in hiding the human core behind it all, and I am eager, therefore, to put a few cracks into this dummy that busy people have slipped around me. (11)
So many cracks! I am so glad to have read this.
Part 1: Education of Architects and Designers
He is and architect and planner, but in many ways and above all a teacher. There is so much here about supporting the following generations to think, imagine, create for themselves. It is lovely, open-minded, focused always on self-improvement through collective endeavor. I also love the way he italicises sentences — much like Ruskin’s aphorisms but not pulled to one side. I have highlighted them because the formatting loses them just a little.
MY intention is not to introduce a, so to speak, cut and dried “Modern Style” from Europe, but rather to introduce a method of approach which allows one to tackle a problem according to its peculiar conditions. I want a young architect to be able to find his way in whatever circumstances; I want him independently to create true, genuine forms out of the technical, economic and social conditions in which he finds himself instead of imposing a learned formula onto surroundings which may call for an entirely different solution. It is not so much a ready-made dogma that I want to teach, but an attitude toward the problems of our generation which is unbiased, original and elastic. (17)
This is a little more of what I was expecting:
Only perfect harmony in its technical functions as well as in its proportions can result in beauty. That makes our task so manifold and complex. (18)
But this relates more to understanding architecture as not simply of aesthetic value but its role in our everyday lives. The way he writes shades sometimes into the uncomfortable pronouncements of the expert upon how lives should be lived, but there is enough sensibility of people’s need to have ownership and control over their environments that could win out over such a top-down assumption of privilege. I am not sure they always did of course, but they might have.
More than ever before is it in the hands of us architects to help our contemporaries to lead a natural and sensible life instead of paying a heavy tribute to the false gods of make-believe. We can respond to this demand only if we are not afraid to approach our work from the broadest possible angle. Good architecture should be a projection of life itself and that implies an intimate knowledge of biological, social, technical and artistic problems. (18)
My Conception of the Bauhaus Idea
After that violent eruption, every thinking man felt the necessity for an intellectual change of front. Each in his own particular sphere of activity aspired to help in bridging the disastrous gulf between reality and idealism. It was then that the immensity of the mission of the architect of my own generation first dawned on me. I saw that, first of all, a new scope for architecture had to be outlined, which I could not hope to realize, however, by my own architectural contributions alone, but which would have to be achieved by training and preparing a new generation of architects in close contact with modern means of production in a pilot school which must succeed in acquiring authoritative significance…
I tried to put the emphasis of my work on integration and co-ordination, inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, for I felt that the art of building is contingent upon the co-ordinated teamwork of a band of active collaborators whose co-operation symbolizes the co-operative organism of what we call society. (19)
I can’t help but feel that this is the genius of Gropius, not so much in what he designed but in the open vision he developed and invited others to own, the creation of collaborative spaces that respected all aspects of creative work, the support of an ideal that working together we are always better than working alone. This thread runs throughout his writings, as does the necessity of reconciling the new industrial reality with a high quality of art and life in a way that someone like Ruskin never could.
Thus the Bauhaus was inaugurated in 1919 with the specific object of realizing a modern architectonic art… It deliberately concentrated primarily on what has now become a work of imperative urgency–averting mankind’s enslavement by the machine by saving the mass-product and the home from mechanical anarchy and by restoring them to purpose, sense and life. This means evolving goods and buildings specifically designed for industrial production. (20)
And so we have interdependence rather than individualism:
What the Bauhaus preached in practice was the common citizenship of all forms of creative work, and their logical interdependence on one another in the modern world. (20)
Our conception of the basic unity of all design in relation to life was in diametric opposition to that of “art for art’s sake” and the much more dangerous philosophy it sprang from, business as an end in itself. …
Here again the emphasis on an openness of vision:
The object of the Bauhaus was not to propagate any “style,” system or dogma, but simply to exert a revitalising influence on design. A “Bauhaus Style” would have been a confession of failure and a return to that devitalizing inertia, that stagnating academism which I had called it into being to combat…
God knows we have too much of the stagnating academism. He opposed this as much as he did the early specialisation to the ignorance of other forms of art and knowledge:
The Bauhaus aimed at the training of people possessing artistic talents as designers in industry and handicrafts, as sculptors, painters and architects. A complete co-ordinated training of all handicrafts, in technique and in form, with the object of teamwork in building, served as the basis. (23)
It embraces this idea of industrialisation as a force that can free us from labour rather than enslave us further. When exactly did we lose that?
The standardization of the practical machinery of life implies no robotization of the individual but, on the contrary, the unburdening of his existence from much unnecessary dead weight so as to leave him freer to develop on a higher plane. (20) … Ruskin and Morris were the first to set their faces against the tide, but their opposition against the machine could not stem the waters. It was only much later that the perplexed mind of those interested in the development of form realized that art and production can be reunited only by accepting the machine and subjugating it to the mind. (21)
and this, refining and repurposing their critique for modern times:
The difference between industry and handicraft is due far less to the different nature of the tools employed in each, than to subdivision of labor in the one and undivided control by a single workman in the other. (22)
His solution? Perhaps not immediately obvious, I am not sure even now perhaps with the benefit of hindsight given all the complexities of capital and consumerism.
DEVELOPMENT OF STANDARD TYPES. The creation of standard types for everyday goods is a social necessity. The standard product is by no means an invention of our own era. It is only the methods of producing it which have changed. It still implies the highest level of civilization, the seeking out of the best, the separation of the essential and superpersonal from the personal and accidental It is today more necessary than ever to understand the underlying significance of the conception “standard”–that is to say, as a cultural title of honor–and firmly to combat the shallow catchword propaganda which simply raises every industrial mass product to that high rank. (26)
Last point here, the importance he set on practice, on experience, on book learning and classroom teaching less than half an education. I love how the material space of the Bauhaus came to be.
In particular, the erection of our own institute buildings, in which the whole Bauhaus and its workshops co-operated, represented an ideal task. (27)
Is there a science of Design?
This looks at design psychologically, understanding how we experience reality and illusion, how children’s perceptions change, the impacts of our subconscious. All the new insights swirling about at the time that now perhaps feel a little dated — but so will our theories in the same span of time. I would like to think architects continue to grapple with them. Gropius again turns to a kind of standardisation:
If design is to be a specific language of communication for the expression of subconscious sensations, then It must have its own elementary codes of scale, form and color. It needs its own grammar of composition to integrate these elementary codes into messages which, expressed through the senses, link man to man even closer than do words. The more this visual language of communication is spread, the better will be the common understanding. This is the task of education: to teach what influences the psyche of man in terms of light, scale, space, form and color. (33)
I am unsure what quite I think of this. What resonates more clearly is the insight into a need for change and motion, the enjoyment of creative tensions.
THE NEED FOR CHANGE. This shift in the basic concept of our world from static space to continuously changing relations engages our mental and emotional faculties of perception…Art must satisfy this perpetual urge to swing from contrast to contrast; the spark, generated by tension of opposites, creates the peculiar vitality of a work of art. For it is a fact that a human being needs frequently changing impressions in order to keep his receptive abilities alert. (40)
He writes a bit later:
We have also learned that the human being needs frequently changing impressions in order to keep his receptive abilities alert. To produce such a stimulus for him contemporary artists and architects try to create the illusion of motion. (69)
Part Two: The Contemporary Architect
Appraisal of the Development of Modern Architecture
I think the present situation can be summed up as follows: a breach has been made with the past which enables us to envisage a new aspect of architecture corresponding to the technical civilization of the age we live in; the morphology of dead styles has been destroyed and we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling; the general public, which was formerly indifferent to everything to do with building, has been shaken out of its torpor; personal interest in architecture as something that concerns every one of us in our daily lives has been aroused in wide circles; and the lines of future development have become clearly manifest throughout Europe. (59)
I am not sure this still feels true, but I love how it rings.
Archeology or Architecture for Contemporary buildings?
This reminds me quite a bit of Lefebvre, and I love this stretching towards how the co-constitution of society and material built environment might work.
ARCHITECTURE is said to be a true mirror of the life and social behavior of a period. If that is true, we should be able to read from its present features the driving forces of our own time. There is conflicting evidence, however. …
Surely there will always be conflicting evidence, surely this conflict must reflect the various social conflicts as much as capital and its dominant aesthetic and social ideals.
Good original architecture depends just as much on an understanding public as on its creators. (66)
I’m still thinking through that.
The Architect Within Our Industrial Society
His is a broad vision far beyond architecture conceived as a single structure, as his writing on housing issues and planning show. He has strong critique of capitalism:
The satisfaction of the human psyche resulting from beauty is just as important for a full, civilized life, or even more so, than the fulfillment of our material comfort requirements.
We sense that our own period has lost that unity, that the sickness of our present chaotic environment, its often pitiful ugliness and disorder have resulted from our failure to put basic human needs above economical and industrial requirements. (71)
As already noted, a strong preference for the collective above the individual, and a very different vision of leadership based on this:
to collaborate without losing their identity. This is to me an urgent task lying before the new generation, not only in the field of architecture but in all our endeavors to create an integrated society. (78)
The conditio sine qua non of true teamwork is voluntariness; it cannot be established by command. It calls for an unprejudiced state of mind and for the firm belief that togetherness of thought and action is a prerequisite for the growth of human culture. Individual talent will assert itself quickly in such a group and will profit for its part from the cross-fertilization of minds in the give and take of daily contact. True leadership can emerge when all members have a chance to become leaders by performance, not by appointment. Leadership does not depend on innate talent only, but very much on one’s intensity of conviction and devotion to serve. Serving and leading seem to be interdependent. (79)
Synchronizing all individual efforts the team can raise its integrated work to higher potentials than is represented by the sum of the work of just so many individuals. (80)
Architect–Servant or Leader?
So what has Bauhaus achieved in his view?
If we look back to see what has been achieved during the last thirty or forty years we find that the artistic gentleman-architect who turned out charming Tudor mansions with all modern conveniences has almost vanished. This type of applied archeology is disappearing fast. It is melting in the fire of our conviction that the architect should conceive buildings not as monuments but as receptacles for the flow of life which they have to serve, and that his conception must be flexible enough to create a background fit to absorb the dynamic features of our modern life. (84)
If only this had not been quite so true, resulting in today’s starchitect working in service of capital:
This cult of the ego has delayed the general acceptance of the sound trends in modern architecture. Remnants of this mentality must be eliminated before the true spirit of the architectural revolution can take root among the people everywhere and produce a common form expression of our time after almost half a century of trial and error. This will presuppose a determined attitude of the new architect to direct his efforts toward finding the type, the best common denominator instead of toward the provocative stunt. (85)
It feels like we now live in ever more global cities of provocative stunts and banal ‘luxury’ residential sameness precisely because ‘we’ (developers, planners, people with money) have failed to put ‘basic human needs above economical and industrial requirements‘. Principally economic as financialisation sweeps all before it. It has resulted in a cold and sterile style that draws on Bauhaus, but has none of its soul, vision or open adaptability to facilitate life rather than capital.
Anyway, a few more posts on this to come — much better than the old post on another of my dad’s old books that I read some time ago now.
Gropius, Walter ( 1966 ) Scope of Total Architecture. New York: Collier Books.
The ancient seat of the Second Bulgarian Empire, this is a lovely place. Ivan and Peter Asen launched the successful rebellion for independence from the Byzantine Empire in 1185.
This is one of the four horsemen from the magnificent monument that honours them:
Veliko Tarnova remained the capital of an empire that expanded across the Balkans before it began constricting again. In 1393 the Ottomans burnt this capital city the ground, though 1396 is the date given for the completion of Ottoman conquest.
Not much is left of the fortress of Tsarevets (Царевец), but its reconstructed ruins drape the hill like a crown. The town itself stacks itself along the hillsides surmounted by its beautiful church. Hristo told us before dropping us off that there is no left or right here, only up or down.
We walked down the oldest street, Ulitsa General Gurko, renamed after the Russian General who led the Russian forces freeing Bulgaria from the Ottoman ‘yoke’ in 1878. We wandered this old impossibly picturesque street with an older couple, and before they left it the man turned back. He spoke little English, but showed us a poor black and white photocopy of this painting kept safe within a clear plastic sleeve:
He beamed a contagious happiness. He had found the precise view of this street depicted here, and after waving the picture at us with a final smile turned to follow his wife. I had not seen the painting previously, but I think this is it. Or close to it. It is perhaps not quite far enough down
I was reading The Rose of the Balkans, histories of Bulgaria being limited. I found the highlight to be the many letters included, like this one describing precisely this street only ten years later.
Nothing can exceed the beauty of the rocky ravine through which the northern road winds as it approaches Trnovo. Here and there the slopes are exquisitely green, dotted with forest trees and fragrant hawthorn; in other places tall perpendicular crags obtain the mastery, and frown down upon the traveler to the right and left, while at his feet the foaming waters of Yantra dash swiftly along, half hidden by the luxuriant foliage, as they carry the melted snows of he Balkans to the broad bosom of the Danube. A sudden turn of the road brings him to the entrance of the town, and it is not without a pang of disgust that he finds himself in a dirty, ill paved malodorous street, the closely built houses of which shut out all view of the lovely valley, through which the river winds as it almost encircles the ancient city of kings and priests. The town lies on a rocky peninsula, and it is necessary to descend to the banks of the river, or, if possible, to scale the dizzy heights of the opposite side, in order to appreciate the extreme beauty of its situation. The houses cluster on the precipice like sea birds on the ocean crag, the red-tile roofs rising one above the other in picturesque confusion, here and there relieved with trees and tiny vineyards, which seem literally to hang over the rapid torrent beneath…
— J. D. Bourchier. Through Bulgaria with Prince Ferdinand, Fortnightly Review, July 1888 (272 The Rose of the Balkans, Ivan Ilchev)
The times are better I think.
But this is still a style of building that…look at these eaves, these houses jostle each other in their lots, sprawl on top of each other down the hills.
But of course the city has grown far beyond these old cobbled streets, like all of the other places we have been here, it is ringed by wider more modern streets full of lovely National Revival style mixed with more modern buildings.
And the outer ring? Buildings like the city hall in a modernist, communist style, huge slabs of social housing. And our absurd hotel, the Interhotel, which represents such faded communist grandeur, and gave us incredible views from our balcony, but also a shower possessed by the devil and the most peculiar smell.
This is a beautiful place full of art and life spilling out across public spaces, lovely craft shops, a brilliant book store and of course, cats.
A far-away from the centre and mountain town, university town, town built around the manufacturing of wool. Its picturesque buildings tumble down hills along narrow twisting streets, offer incredible views across valleys filled with the ruins of old factories. It has built public elevators and funiculars. It is storied with ancient castle walls, labour organizing, and now woolfest, which has brought the town some of my favourite street art. It seems safer to love these incredible works without reservation here unlike Lisbon, where gentrification and the financialisation of real estate through luxury flats and air bnb creeps across that amazing city. Once an art of rebellion, grafitti has become marketable in many places, but perhaps not here. It can just be loved.
We were in Graz for the conference, more precisely my partner was keynoting and I was once more along for the ride. Almost all of the talks were brilliant, something I find all too rare. Where the wondrous cities of Lisbon and Covilhã had been the higlight of our earlier trip given the hopefully-soon-forgotten nature of the conference, here the city perhaps suffered just a bit.
Once the seat of the Austrian Habsburg branch, it too is a city of faded imperial memories. It is beautiful and ornate. Like Prague, it contains high buildings along a handful of wide streets, arcades leading back to courtyards–some still with their medieval cobbling–in what I find such a lovely style of urban architecture.
It also has steep roofs and signs warning of falling snow. In the older
sections clustered at the base of the hill it is all winding medieval
streets (best preserved in Europe they claim, so very hard to
photograph) — the city once appeared this way.
The castle was reduced to rubble by Napoleon however, and the city itself expanded far beyond those old walls.
My favourite view, descending from that very hill:
It now has wonderful trams, good buses, a wonderful art museum (more on that later) and we were lucky enough to be there for the Christmas lights and decorations.
But what I will remember most is late nights with friends (nextmornings not so good, but we managed). Our last night there wandering home in a group through still-not-empty streets at 4:30 am, something I haven’t done in ages, so happy to be surrounded by such amazing people. From photography to Scottish literary figures to apocalypse to hilarious stories to obscure punk bands, conversation was of the best and I cannot wait until we are all reconvened again, though we represented many countries and it will never be quite the same. Wouldn’t want it to be, but I hope for a few more such nights.
My favourite non-human things:
The doppelwendeltreppe, a rare double spiral staircase:
Both Lisbon and Covilhã are built on hills, and never before have I seen such an incredible infrastructure for navigating such terrain. Not that it is perfect mind, but for those with limited mobility it is quite wonderful, and that it should have been a decision to spend public moneys on such thing…brilliant. The most famous is this one, the elevador de Santa Justa from 1902, designed by Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard who was an apprentice under Gustav Eifel.
This is one victorian beauty connecting Bairro Alto to Baixa, that is therefore crammed with people and subject to long lines. We therefore did not use this elevator, but the other, secret elevator that you enter just below a bar with fake grass and lounge chairs, and that dumps you out into a shop selling beautiful purses and other goods made from cork.
We also found this funicular, although we were not able to take it, we had people to meet and cod to eat! I may actually never eat cod again.
Covilhã though, this was a whole new level of infrastructure — I mean, look at these two elevators leading to the most fantastic bridge. I’m not even sure which I loved more. Especially the ways that people greeted each other, held the elevators and etc etc. This is going down and across the valley.
Crossing the bridge and looking down and across old factories.
I loved them but first, look at these. They are beautiful going up.
We did go down another day, you know we did. More factories later, but here is a view of the bridge from below.
There are funiculars here too. Not all of them in working order, and even one that zig-zagged up the great hill from the train station (we ordered it to come and waited and it did not and I tried to converse with a friendly passer-by because in Brazil I communicated all right but in Portugal they speak a language entirely without vowels and I understand nothing so I don’t know if it was broken or simply incredibly impossibly slow). This led from the University up to the town centre.
This isn’t even all of them. I am so impressed. I haven’t even blogged the Gar do Oriente yet.
I loved York, it’s my brother T’s favourite UK city and I could see why…the old medieval streets, the timber framed buildings all slopes and angles, the cathedral and the old churches, Guy Fawkes’ house, Jacobs’ Well, the Merchant Adventurers’ Guild Hall (maybe I’ll get a chance to write about them…but, who are we kidding? I probably won’t), at least three haunted pubs, a number of brilliant bookshops (my case was unbearably heavy heading home and we didn’t even see them all), city walls you can walk on, ruins from the Romans on down, something like 23 cat sculptures hidden on buildings to be found, the most delicious lemon cake I’ve had in some time and ham sandwich triangles from Betty’s Tea Shop, and one of the most beautiful Art Deco cinemas I have ever seen.
It couldn’t help but make me think back to Sitte, Cullen, Alexander about how cities can create drama as you move through them. York curves and opens up unexpectedly, it still has its old narrow passages to what I think must have been once-crowded closes now gone from most cities. It gives such delight, and I know it is mainly because this wasn’t bombed (or then regenerated) flat but still…such delight.
Burnett’s A Social History of Housing looks at the breadth of housing across class — and the insights in how housing connects to ideologies of how life should be lived and how success should be measured are important rewards I think. The poor, the working classes don’t really have much to say about what their housing looks like, how it is structured, how it sits within a neighbourhood (as explored in post 1 and post 2 on this book — it’s a big book to be fair). It is arguable just how much the bourgeoisie have a say between the power of the building and advertising industries and the constraints of culture, but undeniable that they do have more power to live where and how they wish.
The 1800s saw the greater rise of the middle classes and their codes — not unified but tiered, yet they still held in common male superiority and absolute rule over family, women who did not work, sex for procreation, and the home as a sacred institution, pivot of both comfort and moral rectitude.
The rigid statement and enforcement of such a code was of particular importance to a class which, despite its evident energy and enterprise, was still new, insecure and largely unrecognized in political and social status. Many of its members were first-generation recruits, who needed clear guidance on rules of conduct and behaviour. A code would define status: it would serve as a unifying force to combat the enemies without and protect the members within, affording a private retreat behind which the strains and stresses of business life could be washed away, or at least concealed. The home, then, had to fulfil these many functions–to comfort and purify, to give relief and privacy from the cares of the world, to rear its members in an appropriate set of Christian values, and above, all, perhaps, to proclaim by its ordered arrangements, polite behaviour, cleanliness, tidiness and distinctive taste, that its members belonged to a class of substance, culture and respectability. The house itself was to be the visible expression of these values. (99)
This was explicitly developed through a series of early how-to books, which I may very soon become just a little obsessed with as they sound amazing.
Books set out exact budgets, the minimum at which one could live. Men began marrying later even as household budgeting became of ‘prime importance’, with much spending as much about social position as comfort. For most middle class families, the guidebooks advised one tenth of the income to be spent on rent, not to exceed one eighth. (100)
I’d heard of Mrs Beetons, for example, one of the earliest. (I’m going to get my hands on that.) This focus on social position also drove the felt need not just for a home, but for a series of homes — the rather disgusting upward rise from more simple house exchanged for bigger and bigger ones, more servants, a carriage as husband’s salary rises with age. All of these things allowed people to place you precisely within the social hierarchy. What a waste of life.
Not least because all this was happening at a time of grievous morbidity — average life expectancy with poor and rich averaged together: 41 in England and Wales. Liverpool only 26 and Manchester 24. Cities were increasingly seen as unhealthy, poverty-stricken, and so they were, and this was part of the push to the suburbs. But this didn’t explain all of it.
Yet the movement of the wealthier classes outwards form the town centres was not only an escape from their evils; it was a conscious and positive migration towards a different physical environment and a different set of social values…a dream or an image of a different style of life. (104)
And that’s what’s interesting really — the content of that life, those values. Apart from having an ever bigger house and more servants. Burnett writes:
Some of the really great manufacturing families, like the Drinkwaters and the Phillips of Manchester, had, it is true, moved further out to country houses in park-like estates, where from Prestwick the head of the Philips family each day endured the inconvenience of a three-mile ride on horseback to Kersal Toll Bar where a four-wheel cab met him to convey him to his warehouse. In Liverpool, where life was more gracious and spacious than in the industrial cities, some of the merchant princes had ‘marine villas’ as well as town mansions. These were at Waterloo, just clear of the Mersey estuary… This was extreme social segregation (109)
I rather love that image of Phillips, and his ride on horseback to a four-wheel cab, also really hate extreme social segregation.
Architecturally this was also a time of changing styles. The old? The picturesque of the 1790s–associated with Humphrey Repton and John Nash, the villa and cottage, ‘a revulsion against an urban aesthetic, against order, uniformity and control.’ (115) This shifted to Greek Revival around 1800s, Robert Smirke and William Wilkins, best seen in large public buildings and consolidated by John Claudius Loudon’s architectural copy-books. He’s fascinating, his wife, Jane Webb, even more so (I extemporize here). He read her novel about a mummy (creatively titled The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century) and asked a mutual friend to bring her to lunch and the rest, so they say… but in truth she probably had something to do with those copy books as well.
Anyway. Back to Housing the Suburbans:
The total separation which the great country house afforded, encapsulated in its own geographical territory and strictly-controlled environment, was not economically possible for the middle classes, but the suburb gave a high degree of single-class exclusiveness behind frontiers which were clearly distinguishable on the ground even when not openly labelled as ‘private’. So strong was this desire for protection, based perhaps on fear that this tender flower of civilization would be contaminated, even destroyed, by contact with ‘the multitude’, that many suburbs fought hard, and often successfully, to prevent the building of tramways and the extension of cheap workmen’s fares on the existing railway routes to their territories. (192)
Burnett describes even more books to hunt down and find. There is Robert Kerr’s The Gentleman’s House (1864), which seems quite brilliant and gives key considerations to a house and plans as well, and which will be explored later, when I get round to reading the original. But the 12 key considerations for a home that he lists are: ‘privacy, comfort, convenience, spaciousness, compactness, light and air, salubrity, aspect and prospect, cheerfulness, elegance, importance, ornamentation‘. (194)
A telling list. It has lots of amazing budgets and plans, fine distinctions on neighbourhood. If you wanted to live withing ‘the dinner-party radius‘ it had to be Bayswater, Kensington and Bloombury. (201) That made me laugh out loud I confess. Some pictures:
I’ve always wanted a house with a parterre (but no, not really)
There is another book by a Mrs Panton — From kitchen to garret: hints for young householders — from 1888. I am going to read them all.
Burnett gives as an example of this growing suburban movement the ‘most famous Edwardian suburban estate’ — Hampstead Garden Suburb — by architects Parker & Unwin, but conceived by Henrietta Barnett in 1905. I want to know more about her too. But here is a plan of the ideal as it has developed here:
And some of the early drawings:
We have been wandering through here I believe, ourselves stopping at The Spaniards Tavern which was itself awesome but full of terrible people, just like Hampstead Park.
It’s amazing to think that is only around this time that the bungalow came to England — so much I didn’t know about this housing form with a long colonial history. The term comes partly from the bangla of Bengal, and first developed as an Anglo-Indian house-type, becoming the predominant colonial building form in the nineteenth century. In England it tended to be built at the seaside, the 1st one Birchington, near Westgate-on-Sea, Kent. Burnett writes:
These early bungalows were described as combining ‘real comfort’ with ‘pleasing rusticity’; they were ‘cosy’, ‘rural-looking’, ‘quaint’ and ‘perfect as to sanitary qualities’. At this time their use seems to have been confined to the upper classes and wealthy professional people. By the late eighties the bungalow began to move inland. (212)
I have this vision of houses slowly creeping away from the ocean. But in reality it was a developer, R.A. Briggs, who brought them inland (in 1887), earning himself the sobriquet of Bungalow Briggs.
As interesting final note. In most of these early books and discussions of design there is little discussion of the kitchen, and nothing about its comforts. This is because they were assumed to be the province of servants. I desired kitchens, but to find more of them I have to turn to:
America, where ‘the servant problem’ was experienced earlier, and more middle-class women actually worked in their kitchens, serious consideration was given to the organization of the work process as early as 1869 by Catherine E. Beecher. (216)
Not sure I like the term ‘servant problem’ given I come from a long line of servants, but I’m glad we were more quickly liberated in America.
[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]