chapter  2
10 Pages

THE CONTEXT FOR DESIGN

It’s a hoary old cliche´ that society gets the architecture it deserves, or, put more extremely, that decadent regimes will, ipso facto, produce reactionary architecture whilst only democracies will support the progressive. But to a large extent post-Versailles Europe bore this out; the Weimar Republic’s fourteen-year lifespan coincided exactly with that of the Bauhaus, whose progressive aims it endorsed, and modern architecture flourished in the fledgling democracy of Czechoslovakia. But the rise of totalitarianism in inter-war Europe soon put an end to such worthy ambition and it was left to the free world (and most particularly the NewWorld) to prosecute the new architecture until a peaceful Europe again prevailed. This is, of course, a gross over-simplification

but serves to demonstrate that all architects work within an established socio-political framework which, to a greater or lesser extent, inevitably encourages or restricts their creative impulses, a condition which would not necessarily obtain with some other design disciplines

like, for example, mechanical engineering (which, incidentally, thrived under totalitarianism). This brings us to another well-worn stance

adopted by progressive architects; that architecture (unlike mechanical engineering) responds in some measure to a prevailing cultural climate in which it is created and therefore emerges inevitably as a cultural artefact reflecting the nature of that culture. Certainly the development of progressive architecture during its so-called ‘heroic’ period after the First World War would seem to support this claim; architects found themselves at the heart of new artistic movements throughout Europe like, for example, Purism in Paris, De Stijl in Rotterdam, Constructivism in Moscow or the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau. Inevitably, such movements generated a close correspondence between architecture and the visual arts so that architects looked naturally to painters and sculptors for inspiration in their quest for developing new architec-

the as an ordering device both to his Purist paintings and as a means subsequently of ordering the elevations to his buildings (Figures 2.1, 2.2). Equally, Piet Mondrian’s abstract painterly compositions found themselves reinterpreted directly as three-dimensional artefacts in the architectural projects of Van Eesteren and Van Doesburg (Figures 2.3, 2.4), and Lubetkin’s iconic Penguin Pool at London Zoo was informed by the formal explorations of Russian Constructivist sculptors like Naum Gabo (Figures 2.5, 2.6). But the architectural culture of the twentieth

century was also characterised by a series of

theoretical models of such clarity and seductiveness that designers have since sought to interpret them directly within their ‘formmaking’ explorations. Such was the case with Le Corbusier’s ‘Five Points of the New Architecture’ published in 1926 where a tradi-

tional cellular domestic plan limited by the constraints of traditional timber and masonry construction was compared (unfavourably) with the formal and spatial potential afforded by reinforced concrete construction (Figures 2.7, 2.8). Consequently ‘pilotis’, ‘free fac¸ade’, ‘open plan’, ‘strip window’, and ‘roof garden’ (the five points) were instantly established as tools for form-making. A celebrated series of houses around Paris designed by Le Corbusier between 1926 and 1931 gave equally seductive physical expression to the ‘five points’ idea and in turn was to provide a collective iconic precedent (Figure 2.9). Similarly, Louis Kahn’s theoretical construct of ‘Servant and Served’ spaces found an

equally direct formal expression in his Richards Medical Research Building at Philadelphia completed in 1968 (Figure 2.10) where massive vertical shafts of brickwork enclosed the ‘servant’ vertical circulation and service ducts in dramatic contrast to horizontal floor slabs of the (served) laboratories and the transparency of their floor-to-ceiling glazing. The adoption of modernism and its new

architectural language was also facilitated by exemplars which were not necessarily underpinned by such transparent theoretical positions. The notion of ‘precedent’, therefore, has always provided further conceptual models to serve the quest for appropriate architectural forms. Such exemplars often fly in the face of orthodoxy; when Peter and Alison Smithson completed Hunstanton School, Norfolk, in 1954, they not only offered a startling ‘courtyard-type’ in place of the accepted Bauhaus ‘finger plan’ in school design (Figures 2.11, 2.12), but at the same time offered a new ‘brutalist’ architectural language as a robust

alternative to the effete trappings of the Festival of Britain. And within this complex picture loomed a

burgeoning technology which further fuelled the modernist’s imagination. Architects were quick to embrace techniques from other disciplines, most notably structural andmechanical engineering and applied physics to generate new building types. The development of framed and large-span structures freed architects from the constraints of traditional building techniques where limited spans and loadbearing masonry had imposed variations on an essentially cellular plan type. Now architects could plan buildings where walls and partitions were divorced from any structural intrusion.