Friday, June 26, 2009

Parting shots, Top 10

The 'top 10' list of architects had as its purpose a retrospective look at those who wielded truly significant influence on design in the twentieth century and since. To a lesser extent it was an introspective look at particular practitioners who influenced my own thinking.

In the 1920's, the time was ripe for these people to perform. They brought to bear the basics of construction means and methods available at the time, and bent them to new forms of expression. It's been said that behind every great building there is a great client, as well as designer. Clients were changing along with the world in the early twentieth century with the maturation of the industrial revolution and social/political turmoil in Europe and Russia. The sudden availability of electricity, telephones, motion pictures, radio and automobiles broadly impelled new approaches to all aspects of the way we lived.

Although they shared significant traits, architecture's modern masters weren't a very homogeneous lot. The coolly rational constructs of Mies were distinct from the soulful humanity of Aalto or the solid, sometimes taut and twisting concrete forms of Corbusier. We can only wonder what Utzon and the others might have done with the availability of computer-aided design and fabrication so throroughly and deftly mined by Gehry.

An important thing to remember about these people is, they were inventing. They all drew from the past, particularly the immediate past, in setting the course of their own work. However, as they set out in their careers there were few hints in built work in the way of clean lines, stripped of the familiar ornamentation that had marked the architecture of the previous couple of thousand years. Viewing the German Pavillion at Barcelona or the Villa Savoye today, it's difficult to not compare them to structures of today and the last twenty or thirty years - but they were built eighty years ago, and nothing like these "machines for living" had existed. (To put it in perspective look at a 1929 automobile while looking at these buildings.)

Above, 1929 Ford

Below, 1929 German Pavilion, Barcelona

WWI engaged vast armies, with necessities of the war accelerating technical achievment. By the 1920's an explosion of new ways of thinking about the world was evident. Fashions in clothing changed with unprecedented speed and intensity. New factories drew rural populations increasingly into cities and suburbs. The heady times spawed, for what must have been numerous reasons, an almost universal appetite for new and revolutionary images and lifestyle.

O'Neil Ford wasn't really in the same class as the others in this list as a designer, but he was influential in ways whose effects haven't been fully felt. He was probably the profession's most compelling spokesman for regional integrity in design, and he directly influenced generations of Texas architects, who in turn have influenced architecture with Ford's take on things, without any particular focus focus from him regarding what ought to constitute building form. While motivated by cultural and philosophical reasons and what he insisted was common sense, his promotion of conserving existing buildings, the use of indigenous materials and proven methods of dealing with local enviromental conditions are worthwhile signposts toward sustainable design. Nineteeth-century inhabitants used local materials because this was generally the only feasible option. Shade, daylighting, natural ventilation were all employed as rational and necessary reactions to the Texas climate, and Ford never stopped emphasizing the importance of these tools.

The cumulative effect of these individuals, with all the paradox and contradictions within themselves and between them, was one of making available immense enlightenment to all who would follow.

No comments:

Post a Comment