I’ve been researching Marcel Breuer in connection with a new book. The 18-year-old Breuer started as an art student in Vienna, then transferred to the new Bauhaus in Weimar. He chose the woodworking program, and proved to be so talented in furniture design that after he graduated Walter Gropius invited him back to be the master of the woodworking shop. In one short period, 1925-30, Breuer designed some of the seminal modernist chairs of the twentieth century: the Wassily, the Cesca, the B35 lounge chair. During the 1930s, he started working as an architect, collaborating with F.R.S. Yorke in UK and Gropius in the US, and finally working on his own. What is striking is that Breuer moved so effortlessly from designing chairs to designing buildings. This is explained in two ways. Breuer had completely absorbed Gropius’s teaching that design was a universal discipline, that is, if you could design a teacup you could design a city. So having no formal training in building design or construction whatsoever (the Bauhaus did not teach architecture until long after Breuer was there), did not discourage him from undertaking building commissions. The second reason is that modernist architects were inventing as they went along; they did not rely on history, traditional construction, or conventional building practice. Hence, the lack of training was not a liability. Just as a tubular steel lounge chair had no precedent, so too a glass and concrete building was breaking new ground. It was all new.
Of course, such an improvised art could not last. By the late 1950s, as modernism became an academically entrenched discipline—instead of an avocation—it began to show signs of flagging. You can’t really teach improvisation, any more than you can teach jazz. Neither modern jazz nor modern architecture survived.
Marco Velardi invited me to contribute to a small exhibition called Source Material, that he was organizing with Jasper Morrison and Jonathan Olivares during this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan. “We request from you an object of personal value; a reference, keepsake, object, that has informed, provoked, and stimulated your work,” is what he wrote. I sent a pencil and a scale. Here is what I wrote:
I have used many tools as an architect—T-squares, triangles, compasses, protractors, and ruling pens—but the essential tools for me remain a pencil for drawing and sketching, and a scale for measuring. They are a reminder that while the product of architectural design is a building, architects don’t actually build, they draw. I have had many mechanical and wooden pencils over the years, but my favorite is this fat 5B lead holder. Pencils, especially sketching pencils, are particularly personal since they are the intermediate between the hand and the eye, between seeing and recording. This one is made by Bohemia Works and I bought it on a trip to Prague about 40 years ago. The scale has accompanied me since I was an architecture student. The concept of scale is central to design since it allows the architect to record information, for himself and for others. There is something magic about shrinking reality so precisely. Of course, in a digital age pencils and scales have become almost antiques. But after 40 years my sketching pencil still does its job as well as ever. And you don’t need batteries.
Source Material included contributions by David Chipperfield, Naoto Fukasawa, Edwin Heathcote, and Richard Sapper.
A recent article on the impending demolition of the Coler-Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island by the architect and photographer Charles Giraudet raises an important question. The Goldwater portion of the hospital (originally called Welfare Hospital) opened in 1939. It was designed by Isadore Rosenfield, a Harvard educated Russian immigrant who was the Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works and in charge of New York City’s $100 million hospital building program. The architecture is modernist, with Art Deco motifs, and a chevron plan that presages Louis Kahn. As Giraudet, who has been documenting the empty buildings prior to their demolition, writes: “All major programming decisions — from the number of beds to the general layout of the buildings, the angled wings of the wards and the relative heights — were related to an unwavering patient-centric design approach.”
Rosenfield’s design bears comparison with Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium (1933) and Le Corbusier’s unbuilt proposal for Venice (1966). The question raised by Giraudet’s article and the evocative accompanying photographs, is why healthcare facilities are no longer built with any significant degree of architectural ambition. Most are generic environments, at best. Is it because machinery, rather than sunlight and fresh air, dominates healthcare today? Or do hospitals no longer turn to “design architects” because the latter have nothing to offer except a concern with fashion, which is of little import in a healing facility? I would like to see a hospital designed by an imaginative and thoughtful architect such as Bill Rawn or Peter Bohlin. Research into evidence-based design has shown the importance of environmental factors in health outcomes: views of nature lower stress, for example, so do natural materials. Architecture may yet re-enter the equation. Of course, a lot will depend on exactly how architects respond. Form alone won’t cut it.
“I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected,’ ” Kanye West recently told Harvard students in a widely-repeated quote. Architects especially loved it, but Lucas Verweij, a Berlin-based writer, argues in Dezeen that claims such as West’s are excessive. Verweij writes that the expectations placed on design—“design can solve the smog problem in Beijing, the landmine problems in Afghanistan and huge social problems in poor parts of Western cities”—are overblown and cannot be met. “We are in a design bubble,” he writes, “it’s a matter of time before it will burst.” I’m not sure about the bubble—it seems more like a passing fashion to me—but the current idea that every problem is fodder for the design profession is certainly misguided. Can a designer really be master of all trades? The proposition that design can be effective at all scales dates back to Walter Gropius, who claimed that the designer could assume broad responsibilities, from a teacup to a city was how he put it. (Grope’s teacups are OK, his urbanism, not so much.) But design is primarily about the how; the what is determined by a host of circumstantial conditions—social, economic, and cultural—over which the designer exercises no authority. More than 40 years ago, Victor Papanek, a Viennese-born industrial designer, wrote Design for the Real World, in which he made the case for design-as-problem-solving as opposed to design-as-styling. It was compelling stuff—I remember a Third World transistor radio housed in a can, run by candle-power. But were such radios ever produced? The forces of globalism ensured that it was the cell phone, not the the tin-can radio, that revolutionised the world, including the Third World. And the revolutionary aspects of the cell phone are the work of engineers, not industrial designers. The much-vaunted “design” of Apple products, for example, is chiefly (obsessively) minimalist packaging. Pace Papanek.
Just returned from a brief visit to the UK. When you arrive in London, if you have £20 you can take the Heathrow Express (travel time 15 minutes) to the city; if you have £28 you can go first class. The spiffy train interior makes Acela look frumpy. When did the British get so good at design? The original London black cab was the Austin FX3, introduced in 1948. It had plenty of room for luggage, flip-down jump seats, and rear-hinged doors for the benefit of the passengers. The latest model of black cab, TX4, still has those useful features (except the rear-hinged doors), as well as a diesel engine, air-conditioning, ABS braking, a wheelchair ramp, and MP3 compatibility. It carries five passengers and is 2 feet shorter than a Ford Crown Vic, the New York cabbie’s favorite. And it still looks like a black cab.
I despair when I return home. The train from Philadelphia’s airport to downtown is cheaper ($8) but it takes longer, makes local stops, has all the charm of a 1950s subway car, and people struggle to find a place for their luggage. It’s still better than the taxis, though, old sedans that are uncomfortable, beat-up, and driven with reckless abandon by drivers whose newly-acquired knowledge of the city is minimal.
The British have developed an enviable ability to innovate without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In 1971, they decimalized their money, retiring the halfpenny, threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin and half-crown–not to mention the guinea. The smallest paper money now is a five-pound note, and there are sensible one-pound and two-pound coins. The coins still carry the monarch’s image on one side. We can’t even get rid of the penny, let alone introduce a dollar coin. The US Army has adopted metric measure for distances, but the nation seems unable; after a half-hearted try in the 1970s we remain one of only three countries in the world to resist metrication (together with Burma and Liberia). The UK completed metrication more than 40 years ago–but in a very British way. Food is sold in grams and kilos, but people still weigh themselves using that mysterious British measure, the stone. The London Underground counts distances in metric but speeds in imperial. And while gas stations use liters, pubs still serve beer in pint glasses. Cheers.