The Built Environment
Less is More is a dictum repeated so often it has become ingrained in the lexicon, consciousness and aesthetics of our society. It is a complex and contradictory concept. Certainly it is not evident in the commercialism and consumption of the last half century. More, more, more cry the middle masses for their comforts and conveniences. Yet in the built environment, the places where people live they have been offered less and less and without a whimper it has been accepted.
We live in sterile soulless boxes overflowing with our collected consumerism unsatisfied. Where once the heart was at the hearth there is now a manufactured model that substitutes for home. Through thin walls we listen to the innermost secrets of our neighbors but do not know their names. We sleep in cargo containers stacked on high and work in concrete canyons seldom glimpsing sky. Glass and steel in the city, the uniformity of beige stucco in the merchant malls and the repetitiveness of scale in the suburbs is our 21st century environment.
How did we come to live in boxes made of fiberboard and dwellings devoid of decoration?
In the latter part of the 1800s industrialism and wave upon wave of migration had filled cities with fetid tenements and fermenting filth. Disease, crime and social depravity were rampant. Out of this milieu of haphazard and unhealthy housing grew the concept of city planning, driven by organizations (particularly woman’s groups) interested in solving social ills. The 1893 Columbia Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois was a powerful catalyst that delivered a new vision for urban living in the 20th century. The exposition also known as The White City inspired city leaders towards a better future for America.
The City Beautiful Movement initiated by J. Fredrick Olmstead was a result of the new ideas regarding city planning. Olmstead envisioned an interpretive landscape of wide streets with homes set back amongst decorative gardens that established a pleasing view of neighborhoods. City parks and places where the public could participate in daily life and recreation out of doors was a central principle of his philosophy. The city is a public space and his idea was to draw people outside to the fresh air with lovely vistas that would inspire and enhance the lives of urban dwellers. Cities throughout the eastern United States embraced the idea and places like Hartford, Connecticut began public works projects that would ring the city with parks and gardens, which are still enjoyed to this day. Central Park in New York City designed by Olmstead and his partner Calvert Vaux is a shining example of the beliefs and impact of the City Beautiful Movement. That was then. These days city planners favor commercial space over public place. The public gets less the developers get more.
It was at the end of the first World War that the most influential architectural movement of the past century took hold. Modernism with only slight variations has been the dominant force driving architectural design internationally for almost a hundred years. This premise that less is more began in the Bauhaus and de Stijl art compounds of Germany and Holland. Amongst the devastation and disillusion of Europe , writers, intellectuals, artists and architects discarded timeworn beliefs and practices to start afresh, to begin from zero. The Bauhaus School founded by Walter Gropius in1919 was more than a school; it was a commune, a spiritual movement, a philosophical center, a radical approach to art in all its forms.
Starting from zero. The goal was nothing less than to recreate the world, bringing together all of the arts under the umbrella of a great architecture. An architecture for the entire people. As it was understood in 1919 the entire people referred to the proletariat, the workers. Gropius and artists at the Bauhaus were not promoting a political agenda at the school but the influence of the Social Democrats was evident. First – the new architecture was being created for the workers and secondly – it would reject all things bourgeois.
There were a multitude of compounds that sprang up in Europe after the first World War producing some of the best Avant-garde art of the 20th century. It was an exhilarating time with new theories, manifestos and Ism’s everywhere. One thing they all had in common or competed for was to see who had the purist vision – who was the most non-bourgeois. The claims and counterclaims flew back and forth and the theories became so rarefied, ethereal and academic that finally the sole purpose of architects was to see who could produce the absolute, ultimate, completely non-bourgeois designs.
Color other than beige or white was eliminated. Henceforth only a flat roof was appropriate ( a pitched roof resembled a crown). Only honest materials of glass, steel or concrete were acceptable. Granite, marble, limestone or brick were deemed too grandios and bourgeois. Completely free of applied decoration. Only the inner structure of machine made parts and mechanical rectangles should be expressed on the exterior so that the soul of the building could be revealed. An honest building had no spires, bays, corbels, pediments, plinths or pilasters, no capitals or columns. The interiors now utilized an open floor plan (individual privacy was so bourgeois), ceilings lowered, hallways narrowed. Walls were stripped of drapes and wallpaper, casings, cornices, coving, crown moldings and fireplace mantles. Course cast iron radiators now became sculptural objects. Gone were the “luxurious” carpets and “pretty” fabrics of upholstered furniture, replaced by honest materials like linoleum, tubular steel, bentwood, leather and canvas of neutral tones.. What remained were cool white cubes. Nothing bourgeois here, this was housing for the people.
The esoteric conversations continued in the compounds consolidating theories of expressed structure and spatial relationships. Starting from zero they were re-creating the world with all things modern. What was modern were arrangements of geometric forms, of machine like parts and new man made materials. Less is more decreed the architectural authorities but the uninitiated were not buying it. Those still in a position to commission large works still preferred the decorative Beaux Arts style to the geometric offerings of the Modernists. Proponents of Modernism such as Gropius, Bruno Taut, Mies van der Rohe and le Corbusier rose to prominence and fame but there was little fortune. Much was drawn and discussed but few projects were built; unless sponsored by a government for the purpose of worker housing.
In the new century, America still trying to throw off its colonialist trappings was captivated by the European Avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s. Those of the Lost Generaton that travelled to Paris and Europe found the movement irresistible. America had no nobility or monarchy to demonize. The European concept of bourgeoisie had no counterpart. There was little interest in Socialism or worker housing. America was not a smoking heap of rubble that needed to be rebuilt but rebuild it must. Europe had shown what was new, what was modern and the exuberant young America would not be left behind.
An exhibition in 1932 at the new Museum of Modern Art in New York City introduced America to what the museum directors titled the International Style in its catalog. The aesthetics have evolved, the design elements modified but the ramifications and consequence of the International Style are still with us today. Less is more.
In 1937 as the Nazis’ rose to power Bauhaus architechts began arriving in America. These legendary men, Gropius, Breur, Albers, Mohaly-Nagy, Mies van der Rohe, were held in such high regard and esteem they were handed positions at the most prestigious universities in the country. It wasn’t long before work of the instructors and every student from Yale to Chicago looked the same; boxes of glass, steel and concrete. The commissions came in; Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago, Lever House, the Philip Johnson House, the Seagrams Building, the United Nations Headquarters, IBM Plaza and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
What began as worker housing was now high rise luxury apartments and corporate headquarters. Every publication and magazine of architecture or interior design said this is the style of today, this is chic, this is modern. Less is more exclaimed Mies.
Through the 40s, 50s, 60s – society was changing, recreating itself. Mid-size towns were recreating themselves, urban renewal was the catch phrase. Old buildings were torn down creating space to park automobiles. Downtown merchants removed canvas awnings from store fronts, banded brick and marble were hid behind panels of aluminium or stucco and plate glass replaced vestibules. All very modern, contemporary.
New trends started to surface during the 1970s. Artists by nature are curious and exploratory. Architects started to turn away from the pure functionalism of Modernism which they now saw as limiting and boring. Robert Venturi at the fore of the new movement chided “less is a bore“. Post-modernism was now en vogue. It borrowed elements referencing the past, reintroduced color, ornament and symbolism, often eclectic and sometimes with wit. Post-modernism was a welcome variation from strict angles but seldom drifted far from original principles as set forth by Gropius and le Corbusier at the beginning of the last century. The beginning of the last century, the beginning of this century, ninety four years of building boxes.
Residential construction has not been bound to the same demands and principles of Modernist style. Regional influence and individual preference are the difference. There has been a steady reduction in quality and diversity in what builders have offered the consumer over the years however. I have witnessed this myself. In the 1970s I worked as a finish carpenter, a craftsman. By the 1980s my skills were mostly relegated to the dust bin of history. Where once I found pleasure and employment in setting plinths and pediments, casing and coving, banisters and baseboards there was now only the mechanics of leveling particleboard cabinets and squaring pre-hung hollow-core doors. Wood trim has been eliminated as an element of homes and apartments. Windows are now just a hole in the wall wrapped in drywall. Dining rooms and dens gave way to open floor plans (individual privacy, how bourgeois). There is a generation or two that could not tell you what a window sill or apron is, they have never seen them.
Stark and soulless boxes. Homes without a hearth. Developments so dense and homes so close they nearly touch each other. The middle masses with their comforts and conveniences locked behind their doors, didn’t grasp the contradiction, when the banker told them “less is more”.